This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series.
Nainai's Recipe is a cooking experience that will have you learning how to cook from your grandma through texts. You'll grab ingredients from the fridge, chop them up and prepare them, all while sending messages to your grandma about the recipe and learning some of the family history behind each one.
Game Developer spoke with Fan Fang and Mai Hou, developers of the IGF Best Student game-nominated title, to talk about what drew them to capture this connection between themselves and their grandmas, the challenges that come from trying to offer the complexities of cooking in a game, and the relationship between people and the food they cook for others.
Who are you, and what was your role in developing Nainai's Recipe?
Fan Fang worked on the art and Mai Hou worked on the programming of the game. We worked together on the rest of the game. We both come from China.
What's your background in making games?
Mai Hou: My undergrad degree is Electronics Engineering. After that, I worked as a web front-end engineer. I enjoyed these works, but I was not satisfied with a kind of work that tries to hide the personality of the author. So, I started learning game development in my spare time. I made several puzzle games, a point & click story about a grandma, and many game-jam works with Serotoninphobia. I felt making indie games in China was a little lonely because I couldn’t find a community to share thoughts or work with. So, I came to the US and started my MFA studying at NYU Game Center in 2019.
Fan Fang: I was a straight-out-of-college game design graduate student with a background in digital media technology. I enjoy creating experiences for my audience. A lot of my works are about culture, family, and relationships, which led me to continue studying game design at NYU Game Center.
How did you come up with the concept for Nainai's Recipe?
Nainai’s Recipe was our thesis project at Game Center. Nainai means grandma in Chinese. We wanted to make a family story because we love and were influenced by many Asian films—for example, the films made by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Edward Yang, An Lee, Hirokazu Koreeda, etc. We choose a grandma to be the character because we find our grandmas have a lot of untold stories. The more we talk with them, the more the unknown side of them surprised us. We wanted to make a game that simulates this.
What development tools were used to build your game?
A lot of tools, Unity, Blender, Figma, Yarn, Rider, VSCode, Audition, Reaper, FMOD, Notion, Zoom, GitHub, TASCAM DR-22WL, etc.
What made you want to create a game out of cooking? What drew you to this idea?
At the very beginning of our thesis project, we were thinking about making a time-travel detective game about a grandma. The gameplay we imagined was like a mix of Return of the Obra Dinn and Unpacking. However, we found the idea was too abstract to start with, and for a long time, we couldn’t make any progress.
Meanwhile, we started cooking a lot because of the pandemic. And we enjoyed it, so we analyzed why we loved it. Turns out our answer is different from the “answers” provided by the other cooking games we knew. It’s the exploration of how food changes after being cooked by different methods, and the dynamic of people’s relationships while cooking and eating. So, we started making a cooking game combined with the story of the initial idea.
You give players a great deal of control while cutting, preparing, and cooking their meals. Why was it important to you that players have so much control over their cooking?
Actually, in the feedback we received, many players think it’s still not enough [laughs].
We think the challenge of cooking is not just following the recipe; you have to do a lot of experiments to get the right feeling of what is the right state of food. So, we want the gameplay of cooking to focus on exploring the different cooking methods and the ingredients.
We created a control that allows the players to change the different aspects of the food. For example, the knife changes the shape, the heat paints a burned gradient on the food, the oil-to-water ratio affects the semi-transparent layer wrapped around the food, etc. Then we have an examine action so the player can bring the food closer to see how it is changed and get the taste of it. We think cooking is like decorating with less straightforward tools. That’s part of the fun.
What challenges came from giving players so much control over things?
There’re some challenges. First, how to make the control scheme intuitive so the players can focus on the cooking instead of being confused by all the different controls. We’ve tried different input mapping and decided to just use the mouse because it’s precise and fits the hand’s movement of real cooking. But to map all the controls to one mouse is not easy.
We separated different cooking methods and applied specific control schemes and camera angles to each of them. For actions involving different kitchenwares, such as moving food around, we had to give up some of the actions and sometimes guess the player’s intention. For example, how much food they want to pick up, or which action they want to take when there are two possible actions in a small area.
The second challenge is how to teach the player the controls, especially for players who don’t cook a lot. So, we also set the protagonist as a graduate who just started to learn to cook. Thus, the game starts with limited cooking methods and ingredients, as well as easy recipes. Then, we add more cooking methods, choices, and even cooking two dishes simultaneously.
What thoughts went into creating the art style for the game? Into creating the music? What mood and tone did you want them to set?
We chose a cartoonish style for various reasons. First, only with a 3D non-realistic style can we procedurally generate the various states of the food. Not only because it’s easier in development and rendering, but also it gives us more freedom in choosing what characteristics we want to capture. For a fried surface, it can be the golden color, the bright spot, the rough edges, etc. A trade-off is that it’s not easy to render the food as edible and tasty as we would if we used a realistic style. We referred to many anime on how to render the food in a way that looks tasty.
Second, we both didn’t have much experience in making or even playing games with 3D realistic art styles. So, this is a personal style. Actually, we chose the music, mood, and tone based on our personal preferences because this is a story of us and our grandmas.
Why did you have the recipe relayed to the player through texts from their Nainai? What effect did you want this to have on the player? And why did you want to explore the importance of shared recipes within families? The sharing of cooking techniques that are passed down?
We put the recipes in a narrative system so it could be a connection between the cooking and the story. We didn’t want to make a simulation game where you don’t have a strong relationship to the food you make, because the story is part of the food culture that makes cooking by ourselves feel different.
For example, when we ask Nainai how to make a dish, the story would not just be about the recipe. It’s about why we like it, where did Nainai learn it, and how the flavor changed over time from pleasing the whole family to pleasing only Grandpa. We think it’s similar to the idea of a walking sim. The game’s verb is walking, but after being given enough freedom to explore, players will be able to discover a complete story.
Considering we already had a complicated cooking simulator, we didn’t really have other choices for the story other than texts. But using a text-based, asynchronous communication for the narrative fits the gameplay, the story, and the reality we have at this moment very well.
This game, an IGF 2022 finalist, is featured as part of the IGF Awards ceremony, taking place at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, March 23 (with a simultaneous broadcast on GDC Twitch).